Wednesday, November 18, 2015

One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich

By Aleksandra Solzhenitsyn

I recently came across Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when I bought a book by him - August 1914, the first one in the Red Circle. I am yet to read that one. It is quite a formidable tome. I look at it and I start thinking of my failed attempts with War and Peace.

On one of my recent visits to a bookstore, I had picked up August 1914 with mostly an intent of buying it unless I came across something more interesting. As I was exploring the new (for me) bookshop further, this one slid behind and somewhere under the bookshelves that were connected and it took massive effort by the bookseller to get the book out again. So I thought I'll as well buy it for all the effort gone in retrieving it.

Reading through the opening pages, I realised that AS received the Nobel prize for literature in 1970. His was a life of imprisonment and exile.  This is how Joseph Brodsky (another author I admire) refers to Solzhenitsyn in his Paris Review interview: "I really think that in him the Soviet rule got its Homer: what he managed to reveal, the way he kind of pulled the world a little bit around".

So I was on alert mode for the author name, and in the library, came across this relatively small book - 'one day..'(150 pages) by the author. And I am glad that I read this book. One of the best books I have read in a while.

This book depicts a day in the life of a prisoner of a labour camp in Russia. This book was one of the first to talk about what went on in these camps (and is famous for that reason). But apart from the historical significance, what moves one is the way people live and the human spirit that survives. It is not a free life, but people find their daily victories in some way or another.

Sometimes it seems that human beings and human spirit are like water, just taking the shape of whatever vessel it is stored in. In prisoner camps, there is no money earned but people need to work hard in snow and cold without enough warm clothes or heating and without enough food in their bellies. Most of the people seemed to be imprisoned for political reasons -  for perhaps exercising a freedom of choice or that of speech. Since the sentences are for 10 years or 25 years, or more, there lives are more in the camp than outside it. They prefer work to not working; days pass quickly when one is working hard, when one is exhausted and there is not much thought left to spare or squander.  And you follow Ivan Denisovich for the day, and his ups and downs, and his thoughts and feelings, and his pursuit of whatever meagre he can get, and through him, you start pondering about life, happiness and what defines wealth and richness. It is not comfort but it is the content spirit that struggles and achieves or is defeated in pursuit but keeps on struggling.

Time and again, books that leave a lasting impression happen to be those that showcase the indefatigability of the human spirit. At times, this one reminded me of Motorcycle Diaries, but then only because of the wealth of spirit. The inmates have nothing, their daily struggles are around fighting the biting cold with literally nothing, and how to get perhaps 100 grams of more ration to survive.  And that is it.

You read about them, and you then look around you. It is a world apart. It is so very easy to forget all the good things in one's life, all the things one should be grateful for; personally, as well as human beings of this time and age or of a particular country. I don't know whether I can capture or express the thought well, but the feeling it left me with is that our happiness, contentment is a function of our expectations, our gratefulness and perspective. Recognising what we have. Our bars for happiness or unhappiness seem to be so different. Should I speak for myself here, as I have no clue? Or do I? Isn't the popular media, entertainment an example of people's thoughts and worries and what makes them happy and what makes them sad?  Most of modern day normal life problems and decisions sound so silly when you read these accounts. In trading for things, have we traded the depths of our lives?

This book leaves me with a lot to ponder about and takeaway. An awareness of all the privileges and freedom - and recognition of its value. The understanding of how 'things and stuff' and decisions around the web of 'things and stuff'  need to occupy only so much of mind-space and not all of it. And then, to retain the perspective, and to understand that happiness or peace is not an external function, but so much radiated outwards by our own thoughts and spirit; be it in a Russian camp, or in the microcosm of the world I live in which is full of silly mindless problems.

On reading what I have written above, I realize I sound like a preacher, but this post is as much a note to self. A way to preserve the way I feel after reading about a day in life of Ivan Denisovich before I trample into the shallow waters of my own modern life surrounded by stuff and choices which mock the very reason of existence. Pursuit of deeper, still waters, and a proper perspective, is what I wish to remember this book by. That feeling is worth saving.

Highly recommended to anyone interested.


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